President aims to set himself up for reelection in 2019 with new look cabinet and focus on maritime affairs.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s latest cabinet reshuffle left many scratching their heads over the appointment of Wiranto as the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security.

The former general with a checkered past, replaced Luhut Pandjaitan, who ended up as the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs.

Wiranto’s appointment is seen as particularly problematic considering that he is believed to have allegedly committed human rights violations in East Timor in 1999, with an arrest warrant issued by the United Nations in 2004 for crimes against humanity.

Combined with the last round of executions, which saw four convicted drug smugglers shot (and 10 spared, for the meantime, at the last minute) it is not surprising that many reacted to Jokowi’s new look cabinet with dismay.  Human rights groups have even questioned Jokowi’s commitment to human rights.

The appointment of Wiranto, however, should not be seen as an indication of further deterioration in the condition of democracy and human rights in Indonesia. Rather, Wiranto’s appointment should be seen as evidence of Jokowi’s further consolidation of power and his attempt to secure real achievements before the 2019 Presidential Election.

At this middle point in his presidency, with the economy still in the doldrums, Jokowi is anxious to accomplish something in the next three years in an effort to get reelected. As a result, he is pulling all stops. This is also why he brought back the widely respected economist Sri Mulyani, who was seen as the architect of Yudhoyono’s economic success, hoping to spur economic growth, increase tax income, and secure much needed foreign investment.

This is also why Jokowi is moving Luhut Pandjaitan to the position of Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs. This action could correctly be seen as a signal that Jokowi has grown annoyed over Luhut Pandjaitan’s growing influence and thus felt the need to gently rebuke the latter by moving him to another very important, but less prestigious post.

Jokowi, however, has never doubted the loyalty of Luhut; otherwise, he would have been demoted to a much less important post, lost his ministerial position, or even have been kicked out of cabinet. In this new position, Luhut is still inside the cabinet, within the inner circle of power and enjoys the full backing of Jokowi. With his strong political acumen and closeness to Jokowi, he still holds a key role in cabinet.

In fact, Jokowi’s real goal in appointing Luhut to the portfolio is to position maritime issues as the cornerstone of his accomplishments that can then be promoted during the 2019 election campaign. He trusts Luhut to be able to deliver results, free of controversy, unlike Rizal Ramli, his predecessor, who had little to show while getting bogged down in many controversies and disputes with other ministers.

At the same time, Jokowi is consolidating his political support by giving ministerial posts to Golkar and PAN, the new members of his political coalition. Under this reshuffle, however, Wiranto’s Hanura Party actually lost two important ministerial posts. Thus, Jokowi gave Wiranto the highly prestigious post of Coordinating Minister for Security, Law, and Politics — a small price to pay to maintain Jokowi’s supermajority in the Parliament and keep the opposition in a position of irrelevance.

While the post of Coordinating Ministers, are seen as powerful, prestigious and important, they are only as powerful as the president wants them to be. As indicated by its name, the main role of the Coordinating Ministers is simply to manage the workings of several different ministers.  What is often left out from the discussion is that these Coordinating Ministers do not have power to coerce these ministers, unless the president throws their backing behind them.

As a result, each minister could actually resist this intrusion of his or her power through bureaucratic means, such as by slowing down or even ignoring an order. Thus Rizal Ramli, as the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs could not force Sudirman Said, then Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, to obey him. They ended up having a very open, public argument, which led to both ministers’ dismissal in this cabinet reshuffle.

This is also the reason why the breakup between Megawati Sukarnoputri and her then Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was particularly bitter and long – Megawati had given her full backing and trust to Yudhoyono, only to be betrayed by the latter’s decision to challenge her for the presidency.

This is also why the appointment of Wiranto should be seen as part of Jokowi’s attempt to consolidate his power, and why Wiranto is not simply going to become the second or third most powerful person in Indonesia, with the ability to influence any attempt to redress human rights violations in Indonesia. Jokowi still holds the levers of power.

Human rights promotion has never been a priority of Jokowi anyway.

Even though he allowed Wiranto’s predecessor, Luhut Pandjaitan, to pursue some limited attempts for reconciliation, including the Symposium on the 1965 Communist Purge back in April 2016, after all the controversies and backlashes that followed, including the Indonesian People’s Tribunal in the Netherlands, Jokowi seems to have lost enthusiasm in pursuing the issue further. It is doubtful that there will be any resolution to this issue, regardless of whether it is Wiranto or somebody else who occupies the position of the Coordinating Minister for Security, Law, and Politics.

At this point, the cabinet reshuffle should be seen as what it is — an attempt by Jokowi to lay the foundations for the 2019 Presidential Election campaign by achieving some real results while also shoring up his political support.

The stark reality is, he is getting more and more confident in his position – which is shown by his decision to announce the reshuffle on 27 July, a particularly important day for Megawati and the PDI-P. It was also the same day that Golkar declared its intention to nominate Jokowi for the 2019 Presidential Election.

While this may be seen as reading too much between the lines, it seems that Megawati is not too happy about the reshuffle. The deafening silence from Teuku Umar regarding the President’s new look team of ministers may be a signal of things to come.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani, Cimahi, Bandung. He can be reached at His Twitter handle is @yohanessulaiman

Special thanks to Alex Arifianto for his thoughtful comments.